The area around Chile’s San Pedro De Atacama is absolutely stunning but due to the high altitudes here you should to plan your itinerary carefully to minimise any chances of getting altitude sickness. Below I have outlined the best activities and excursions in and around San Pedro in the best order, as well as recommending tour companies, restaurants and top tips for visiting San Pedro. Read on for the perfect San Pedro De Atacama itinerary!
San Pedro de Atacama is a small pueblo town located in the north of Chile. Whilst there are only 2,500 inhabitants living in San Pedro, it is a popular place for tourists to visit as it is surrounded by some incredibly diverse and stunning landscapes. Nestled in the Andes mountains at an altitude of 2,408 metres above sea level, San Pedro is just a short drive from snow-capped volcanoes, vast salt flats, lagoons, geysers and the world’s driest desert. This desert is known as the Atacama Desert and is one of South America’s top places to visit!
Another reason many tourists visit San Pedro de Atacama is because it is located only 25 miles from the Bolivian border. Therefore many people will spend a few days in San Pedro before crossing from Chile into Bolivia. The easiest way to do so is to do a 3 day tour starting in San Pedro and finishing in Uyuni, Bolivia (or vice versa if you want to go from Bolivia to Chile). You will cross the Salar de Uyuni – the largest salt flats in the world, as well as some really unique and breathtaking landscapes (see below pictures). To read more about getting from San Pedro to Bolivia on a 3 day trip click here.
Before we continue with the itinerary you need to be aware of altitude sickness. If you’ve never been in high elevations before you might not be familiar with the term ‘altitude sickness’. Altitude Sickness is serious and can affect many people old and young. High elevations can be classed as an elevation of around 2,500 metres above sea level or higher, which is when acute mountain altitude sickness can kick in. At higher elevations the air pressure is low, causing low oxygen levels in the air. Altitude sickness occurs if the body hasn’t had enough time to adjust to these reduced oxygen levels.
Common symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, dizziness, fatigue and loss of energy, vomiting and loss of appetite but it can even lead to oedema, which can lead to a coma or even death in very extreme circumstances. The most important thing when you are in areas of super high elevation is to acclimatise your body slowly. You need to spend a couple of days at an elevation to get your body acclimatised before you ascend higher. Going too high too quickly can make you sick.
The altitude at San Pedro is quite high at almost 2,500 metres above sea level, so you could be at risk of getting altitude sickness here. The air is thin up here so take it easy on your body and give yourself time to acclimatise to the increased altitude. Especially if you head across into Bolivia and Peru, altitudes get higher so you need to be aware of altitude sickness.
To reduce the chances of getting altitude sickness:
- drink lots of water
- reduce alcohol consumption
- take deep breaths
- take altitude sickness tablets
- increase elevation levels slowly. If you do get altitude sickness, you can reduce your elevation and the symptoms should subside.
What to pack for San Pedro de Atacama:
- ALTITUDE SICKNESS TABLETS! Buy some altitude sickness tablets before you get out here, and know when to take them. If you don’t have any tablets you can buy some coca leaves here and chew on them to help combat altitude sickness.
- LAYERS! Temperatures can fluctuate a lot here in the desert. The days are warm and the nights are very cold, so make sure to bring lots of layers.
- SUN CREAM! San Pedro de Atacama is one of the driest places on earth. The sun is so strong here so bring sun cream and a chap stick that has SPF! If your lips get dry and sunburnt it is literally the most uncomfortable thing ever!
- TORCH! Not just for walking back to your accommodation after dark, but also because this is a very remote area so it might come in handy.
- DINERO! Don’t rely on ATM’s here as there are only a couple in San Pedro. Bring money with you, especially as most places (tour companies in particular) only accept cash.
Exploring San Pedro de Atacama town
San Pedro de Atacama lies in the middle of the Atacama Desert – the world’s driest desert. Life is very laid back here in this small charming town full of narrow streets, picturesque buildings made of clay and the odd friendly stray dog hanging round.
Make sure you take some time to explore the town of San Pedro too in between all the excursions!
- Wander round the local market located just off the main square and shop for some local indigenous souvenirs. The locally woven blankets are a really popular choice for souvenirs (and they come in handy on the cold nights here!). You can use them as a table cloth, hang it on the wall or as a sofa throw!
- Visit Iglesia San Pedro – this elegant yet simple church is the second oldest church in Chile, dating back from Spanish Colonial times. The church was built out of cacti wood and mud and is located at Plaza de San Pedro De Atacama.
- A popular activity is to cycle round the town. Often your accommodation can provide you with a bike, or to rent one out costs roughly CLP3000 (£3) for half a day. You’ll find you will get out of breath a lot quicker than normal due to the high elevation so take it easy! If you’re up for it and have time, you can cycle 3km to the Pukará de Quitor, which is an archeological site with ruins of a 12th Century fortress. Pukara de Quitor is located on a hillside and offers beautiful sweeping views over the valley.
There are lots of really nice restaurants in San Pedro, many inexpensive with a laid-back chilled vibe. Popular restaurants include Adobe, Pizzeria El Charrua, Roots Cafe and La Estaka (more pricey). All of them have lots of dishes to choose from and lots of healthy options. You can find many restaurants with local Chilean food, as well as restaurants specialising in international cuisine.
You can book excursions when you get to San Pedro or you can organise them before if you prefer. Cosmo Andino Expediciones is one of the best and most trusted companies here. Also if you are planning to visit Bolivia and Peru during your trip see my detailed Bolivia Peru Itinerary here.
Day trips from San Pedro de Atacama:
There are 7 main attractions you can put on your itinerary and visit on trips from San Pedro de Atacama:
- Valle de la Muerte – ‘Death Valley’
- Valle de la Luna – ‘Moon Valley’
- Laguna Cejar – lagoon you can float in (like The Dead Sea)
- Salar de Atacama – largest salt flats in Chile
- Stargazing in the Atacama Desert – one of the best places in the world for stargazing
- Altiplanic Lagoons (Laguna Miñique and Miscanti) – beautiful lakes inside Los Flamencos National Reserve
- El Tatio Geysers – highest geysers in the world!
As you can see, there is so much to do in San Pedro and it definitely deserves a few days on any Chile itinerary!
The list is written not only in rough order of proximity to San Pedro, but also in order of altitude height! I advise you to do the trips at the beginning of the list first, to give your body adequate time to acclimatise to the altitude. Some of the attractions, such as El Tatio geysers are at a much higher elevation than San Pedro (4,320 metres above sea level), so if you visit these last it should hopefully minimise any chances of getting altitude sickness!
You can easily fit a couple of the attractions into each day and the tour companies here are great at coordinating this – perfect if you only have a couple of days in San Pedro and want to cram as much in as possible. For example, you can visit Valle de la Muerte in the morning and Valle de la Luna in the late afternoon/evening, whilst still having a few hours for a relaxed lunch and afternoon walk around San Pedro.
Note if you are coming from Bolivia and have done the 3 day Salar de Uyuni trip (or will be doing it after visiting San Pedro) you may want to skip out a couple of the places such as the Altiplanic Lagoons and the salt flats. This is because on the 3 day San Pedro to Uyuni trip you will see similar lakes, salt flats and flamingoes. Pick the activities around San Pedro that are different to what you already have or will experience in Bolivia.
Valle de la Muerte
Altitude: 2,407 metres above sea level
Valle de la Muerte ‘Death Valley’ is an ideal trip to take on your first day in San Pedro de Atacama as it is only a 5 minute drive from San Pedro and the elevation is similar to that of San Pedro. Valle de la Muerte is also sometimes called Valle de Marte or ‘Mars Valley’, which seems more appropriate considering the amount of unusual red rock formations here.
The valley is both very mountainous and sandy and is really popular for sand boarding. Sandboarding is harder than it looks and the sand dunes are steep to climb, but it is a lot of fun! Plus from the top of the sand dunes you’ll be rewarded with beautiful mountain views.
Tours cost around $20 and include the rent of a sandboard. Tours depart morning, afternoon (1pm) and evening (4pm). The 1pm afternoon trip is the most preferred and most convenient time. If you do the 1pm afternoon trip you will be back in San Pedro in time to do the Valle de la Luna tour at 4pm.
If you don’t want to do sandboarding or go on a tour and would like the freedom of visiting independently, you can visit Valle de la Muerte yourself by bicycle as it is less than 3km from the centre of San Pedro. You can cycle round Valle de la Muerte (not on the sandy bits of course) so you can cover more ground and see more.
Valle de la Luna
Altitude: 2,264 meters above sea level
Valle de la Luna ‘Moon Valley’ is 8 miles away from San Pedro, again making it a really convenient trip.
The landscape of Valle de la Luna is out of this world! It is so intriguing and really unique – it literally felt like you were on the moon! If Wadi Rum in Jordan impressed you, prepared to have your socks blown off here. Red soil, sand dunes, rock formations and monoliths surround you, and make sure to be here for either sunrise or sunset are they are simply spectacular. The colours of the sky are incredible, and the backdrop of the snowcapped mountains certainly leaves a lasting impression.
To enter Valle de la Luna it costs $3,000 CLP (£3), that needs to be paid when you arrive at the ticket office. Note they take cash only. Like Valle de la Muerte, you don’t need to do a tour and can actually visit independently if you wish. If you prefer to take a tour, they mostly depart San Pedro at 4pm and stay to watch the sunset. Therefore as the tours mostly arrive in the evening here, if you visit independently you may wish to come for sunrise. Just don’t come in the middle of the day as it is too hot and the lighting won’t be great for photos.
To see the best viewpoints you will need to explore the area by foot. If you come with a tour your guide will show you all the best places, but the Amphitheater and Piedra del Coyote are really good places to watch the sunset, albeit a bit crowded.
Laguna Cejar is a 30 minute drive from San Pedro (16 km distance) and is located near the start of the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flats). What makes Laguna Cejar really special is that you can float in the water here, like in The Dead Sea! It is a really unique experience and tours often depart from San Pedro in the afternoon around 4pm.
Tours to Laguna Cejar cost around 15,000 Chilean Peso CLP (£13.50).
Salar de Atacama
Whilst everyone is familiar with Bolivia’s salt flats: the Salar de Uyuni, Chile has it’s own salt flats: the Salar de Atacama located about 35 km south of San Pedro de Atacama. They are the largest salt flats in Chile and can easily be visited by yourself or as part of a tour. Laguna Chaxa is located in the Salar de Atacama and has a similar elevation to that of San Pedro. At Laguna Chaxa you can see lots of flamingoes.
If you will be visiting Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (the largest salt flats in the world) you may want to skip going to the Salar de Atacama and Laguna Chaxa.
Stargazing in the Atacama Desert
Due to the almost non-existent level of light pollution in the Atacama desert you can see the stars and constellations really well here. Take a stargazing tour, stare into the sky and spots the stars with the help of your guide and a high powered telescopes provided. Tours depart at dusk and last about 3 hours.
Altitude: 4,000 metres above sea level
The Altiplanic lagoons (Miscanti and Miñiques) are located inside the Los Flamencos National Reserve and are 90 kilometres south of San Pedro de Atacama, close to the Argentinian border. It takes roughly 1.5 hours to reach the lagoons, which are located right next to each other, and this will be a full day trip.
Laguna Miñique and Laguna Miscanti are both incredibly beautiful with deep blue water, white shores and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. At the lakes you will also see lots of flamingoes. Whilst the air is clean and crips up here, they are located 4,000 metres above sea level so bring layers as it is cold!
As the lagoons are quite far from San Pedro, it is best to find a tour company that will cover several other places in the trip too, to make the long journey worthwhile and avoid you doing the journey twice. You can find tours that also visit the piedras rojas (red rocks) and Salar de Talar and Salar de Atacama such as this one here. There is no public transport to get here so taking a tour is the only way to reach these places.
El Tatio Geysers
Altitude: 4,320 metres above sea level.
If you want to see some incredible geothermal activity, head to El Tatio Geysers. Also called the Capacoya Geysers, they are the third largest geyser field in the world, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and the highest geysers in the world!! What is really unique about these geysers compared to ones in New Zealand or Iceland for example, is that there are more than 80 geysers here and they are so close together! There is so much steam coming from the earth and it can look very eerie! There are also hot springs you can bathe in afterwards.
The geysers are 80km north of San Pedro de Atacama and it takes roughly 2 hours to reach them. You’ll see lots of beautiful scenery and wildlife along the way. Tours depart early in the morning (around 4am!) and are back at around lunchtime.
Where to stay in San Pedro de Atacama:
There are accommodation options for all budgets here in San Pedro, from budget hostels to luxury hotels. The Main Street of San Pedro is Caracoles, so book one near here if you want to be central. San Pedro is quite lively in the evenings so it’s good to be close to the centre so you don’t have far to walk home after dinner or drinks. If you want to stay a little further away, see if your hotel provides bicycles or transport.
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama
The majority of people will arrive into San Pedro de Atacama either from Santiago – the capital of Chile, or from Bolivia.
San Pedro is usually either people’s last or first stop in Chile, due to it’s geographical location and it’s close proximity to the Bolivian border.
If coming to San Pedro from Bolivia you will need to do a 3 day trip from Uyuni that finishes in San Pedro. Click here to read more.
How to get to San Pedro de Atacama from Santiago de Chile
- You can either take the bus (24 hours journey) or plane (2 hour flight). The distance is 1000 miles.
- It is highly advisable to go by plane as plane tickets are often just as cheap as the bus if you book in advance.
- The nearest commercial airport to San Pedro de Atacama is El Loa in Calama (CJC). Calama is an hour’s drive from San Pedro. LATAM, JetSMART & Sky Airline fly here from Santiago. You can also catch infrequent flights to some other Chilean cities (Iquique, Concepcion and Antofagasta). There are no international flights to Calama so if San Pedro is your first or last stop in Chile before flying home, you’ll have to change in Santiago.
- Organise a transfer from Calama Airport to San Pedro with your accommodation.
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